A Saskatoon business is apologizing and will be providing its employees with sensitivity training after remarks made by its owner and his daughter criticizing Orange Shirt Day online were deemed insensitive and offensive.
Andi Early, whose father Spencer Early is president of Early’s Farm and Garden in Saskatoon, criticized Orange Shirt Day in a Facebook post earlier this week. In the post, Early wrote about “Identity politics” entering into the classrooms of young children, citing Orange Shirt Day as an example.
“Children should not be political instruments and we completely disagree that orange shirt day has unanimously imposed on everyone,” she said in the post, which included a picture of an orange shirt, with the phrase “not for kids” written on top. “The more we focus on the historical inequalities the more it will foster current inequalities. We don’t participate.”
Orange Shirt Day is an annual event designed to honour residential school survivors and their families, and to raise awareness about the the injustices and mistreatment Indigenous people suffered while they attended.
The day itself was inspired by the story of Phyllis (Jack) Webstad, who had a new orange shirt taken from her by residential school staff as a six-year-old girl, according to the Orange Shirt Day website.
Andi does not hold any position at Early’s Farm and Garden. However, in a response to the post, Spencer wrote, “What about the Jews, Irish, Ukrainian, Japanese, Chinese…etc,etc. Don’t ‘cherry pick’ the list. Discuss it all collectively as the human experience or not at all.”
Reaction was swift, with hundreds of comments expressing frustration and anger, and many people saying they’ll take their business elsewhere.
The business apologized for the post following the outcry, then later issued a second apology from Spencer Early from its Facebook page.
In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Spencer said he’s sorry for any pain the post and his response caused.
He said upon reflection, he understands why it spurred such a strong reaction.
“At the time, it was meant to be inclusive,” he said. “It was saying I’d like the education to be inclusive of all of these things that have happened to individuals and groups, and that was the intention of it, but it certainly didn’t work that way.”
Early said the store will be closing early on Wednesday and that Cort Dogniez, a First Nation and Métis education consultant, will be speaking to staff about Canada’s residential school system.
He said the opinion shared by her daughter and the remark he had made do not reflect the overall beliefs of Early’s Farm and Garden.
“Today is a day to listen,” he said in the apology.
He says the store has a good relationship with Indigenous people, including those who frequent the store from the Dakota Whitecap First Nation.
“We value them in the community. We value them as customers and if there was an interpretation of remarks that wasn’t what it was intended to be, we apologize for that, and we’ll be reaching out into the community as much as we can.”
Spencer said it’s likely the information session on Wednesday will be the first of several. He said he plans to work with the consultant to determine next best steps.
“Hopefully we can learn and carry forward,” he said.
Christine Freethy, whose family is Métis, said both of the posts were frustrating.
She said Andi taking the time to create an image to go along with the post indicates it was done with intent.
“There was a lot of thought put into it and a lot of effort,” said Freethy, who lives in Saskatoon, but also farms near Rabbit Lake.
She said Spencer’s response upset her most and that she doesn’t believe him that the message was meant to be inclusive.
She the was it was delivered and written makes her think the post was done in defence.
“To equate that to just generalized prejudice and other racialized experience is to not only negate, but to deny,” she said. “Any one in Saskatchewan now who denies the severity of the residential school genocide, I think in our context, it’s almost as bad as people who are holocaust deniers.”
Feethy commended the person who shared screenshots of the posts, saying businesses in Saskatchewan need to understand unacceptable, racist beliefs won’t be tolerated.
As far as the business’s apology, Feethy said she’s waiting to see what action Early’s takes moving forward.
“The proof will be in the pudding,” she said. “Let’s see what kind of partnerships they make with Indigenous people who are working in the areas of horticulture, gardening, horse tack. There’s lots of ways they can prove that this matters.”